Some heroes age, but they never get old. “Ash vs. Evil Dead” relies heavily on that very conceit, betting on the charm, skill and sheer ability of Ash — and the man who plays him — to carry a franchise that’s now 34 years old. The odds of fans getting sick of one of the horror genre’s greatest heroes is pretty low, but the possibility can’t be discounted: After mixed success skewing toward failure with every additional picture, reviving action icons of yesteryear is a risky proposition. Be it under the same hat (like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator Genisys” and Sylvester Stallone in “Rambo IV”) or a new, similar guise (like both in “Expendables 2” and “3”) some of the veterans that we loved in decades past have too many miles on them to keep trucking in 2015. And with Starz banking on “Ash” to last for not just a new movie, but a seasons-long TV series, the gamble is even riskier.
After just two episodes spent with Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams, though, the bet paid off — big time.
Fans should feel a similar pang of satisfaction and visceral rush of excitement when watching “Ash vs. Evil Dead” as they undoubtedly did when the man with the best chin in horror returned for “Evil Dead 2” and “Army of Darkness.” The fact that Ash isn’t going anywhere only makes the early success of the series all the more alluring. Busting out the boomstick on TV promises a dose of Ash every Saturday for a full season, rather than one lucky Friday every six years (the time span between each film, not counting the 22 years since “Army of Darkness”).
But being treated to a hero who we can’t get enough of isn’t the only advantage creator Sam Raimi brings to the half-hour horror show. “Ash vs. Evil Dead” makes a seamless transition from big screen to small, in part because the difference between the two has been shrinking for the past decade or so, but also because Raimi’s sure-handed, inventive and delightfully wild direction in the premiere episode feels fit for any screen whatsoever.
Capitalizing on a story that doesn’t waste time getting going, Raimi’s sequel finds Ash working at a department store and living in a trailer. He spends his time romancing just about anyone who will listen, and that gets him in a bit of trouble; trouble he’s familiar with, but that’s (of course) more powerful and dastardly than before. Yes, the Deadites are back, and with them comes a slew of new characters — some eager to destroy them and others unwilling members of their army.
Casting for both is almost absurdly good, especially when it comes to finding future victims. It’s eery watching these choice character actors, knowing they’ll soon be white-eyed, demon-versions of themselves, but casting director Lauren Grey has chosen so well it’s as though you’re prepped for what they’ll become and yet still shocked by each unveiling (credit for the latter goes to Raimi, prosthetic artist Claire Ramsey and the entire makeup team).
And you better believe when the Deadites come out to play, so does the entire crew behind “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” From lighting and costumes to effects and direction, these action scenes are ridiculously bloody, imaginative and oh so fun. Scares are teased so carefully with sound and shadows it’s impossible not to get goosebumps, and other frights are deeply chilling thanks to Raimi’s experience with one of his best creations. The Deadites’ greatest power — to look like and speak as though they’re still your friend, parent or loved one — remains unchanged and is utilized to tremendous effect. An early, Ash-less scene in the premiere that could have felt disconnected and overlong instead comes off as frightening foreshadowing for what’s to come, and that’s in large part due to the work of the crew.
Their effort, combined with Raimi’s hot hand and Campbell’s powerful charisma, all come together for a stunning climax in the premiere, and — even if the second episode doesn’t quite match up — the standard has been set. Episode 2, which features a new director and credited writer, may feel a bit like an imitation of what came before, but the effort is very clearly there. Even if the rest of the season can’t match its opening chapter, one missing part — which isn’t even entirely gone, as Raimi is still very involved with the show — can’t knock “Ash” out of its groove. Watching the production come up with crazy kills and challenging set pieces is nearly as fun as hearing Ash’s continuous wisecracking, making “Ash vs. Evil Dead” quite possibly the most fun you can find on television. It’s certainly the best action I’ve seen in a while, proving even an aging hero can still kick ass.